ROCHESTER - The City of Rochester went full-blown Gestapo on Friday as Rochester Voice editor Harrison Thorp was thrown out of City Manager Katie Ambrose's office by City Attorney Terence O'Rourke who threatened Thorp with arrest for trespassing during a meeting on Right to Know issues orchestrated by Strafford 1 state rep Cliff Newton.
Newton had invited Thorp to attend the meeting so he could report on its findings to Rochester residents.
Upon entering the city manager's office around 12:30 p.m. Ambrose demanded to know from Newton if he had invited The Rochester Voice.
"Yes, I asked him to be here," Newton said.
O'Rourke then commented that the city had "pending litigation" against "Mr. Thorp" and that it would be inappropriate to allow him to be at the meeting.
The pending litigation O'Rourke referenced is an appeal in Merrimack Superior Court of the state's Right to Know Ombudsman's Office recent decision that deferred any definition of the word "citizen" in the state's Right to Know law to either the judiciary or legislative branches of New Hampshire state government.
Thorp then asked why the city would not be receptive to having him there to report on the meeting.
Ambrose and O'Rourke then remarked that it might be best just to cancel the meeting, which they said they understood would be private.
"Why not be transparent?" Thorp demanded.
"We were told this would be a private meeting," Ambrose replied.
O'Rourke, who had been seated next to Ambrose, then got up from his chair, strode up to Thorp, squared off with him face to face and said "The city manager has asked you to leave her office. You have to go now."
"Trespassing?" Thorp said referencing a possible criminal complaint that might be referred to police.
"Yes," O'Rourke replied.
Not wanting to escalate the situation, Thorp turned to leave, only to have O'Rourke bellow, "Go" as Thorp was already walking out of Ambrose's office.
The meeting was attended by several city of Rochester employees, a couple of state reps and Rochester Mayor Paul Callaghan, who said nothing during the verbal exchange and confrontation between Ambrose, O'Rourke and Thorp.
In fact, moments before Thorp entered the office of the City Manager, he watched as Callaghan and O'Rourke descended the stairs from the Opera House to join the meeting.
The Friday debacle in Ambrose's office came just two days after the New Hampshire House of Representative's Judiciary Committee heard testimony from Newton, Thorp and many others regarding recent attacks on the Right to Know law by City of Rochester Officials, the New Hampshire Municipal Association and other municipalities across the state.
House Bill 1696, sponsored by state rep David Bickford, R-New Durham, says that "Nothing in this section shall prevent the public body or agency from accepting a governmental record request by electronic means or from providing such records electronically, without requiring the physical appearance of the citizen making the request."
Among those testifying at the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday were Bickford, Newton, R-Rochester, Thorp, Union Leader publisher and New Hampshire Press Association President Brendan McQuaid and Gilles Bissonnette, legal director of the ACLU of New Hampshire.
Bickford told The Rochester Voice on Thursday that he was "very happy with how the day of testimony went," adding that the Judiciary Committee seemed "very receptive and concerned about towns not giving out information electronically."
Bickford said that the New Hampshire Municipal Association was central to the problem, saying they are orchestrating "speed bumps" to those seeking government documents.
"They've been at the forefront of the problem," he told The Voice in an exclusive interview. "The NHMA has become an organization like they're them (municipal government) and we're the public, and they don't have to work with us. They don't seem to care if they make life tough on the public."
Bissonnette testified that Bickford's bill was well conceived, but he thought is should be tougher on municipalities.
"The language should be stronger," he said. "This is a growing problem. Even when just a couple of documents are requested they should reply immediately with no cost. This is a needless problem. "(Digital compliance)
should be a mandate."
Newton testified that how he was forced to spend nearly half his salary as state rep for copies of his Right to Know request in today's technological age is ridiculous.
Thorp also testified during the meeting, arguing that his being denied Right to Know documents because the City of Rochester said he was not a citizen of New Hampshire was nothing short of a blasphemy against a recognized, award-winning news entity.
Both Bickford and McQuaid referenced The Rochester Voice during their testimony as showing the "speed bumps" put before news entities as well as just regular private citizens.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Lynn, a former New Hampshire Supreme Court justice, told The Voice during the meeting that the "citizen" issue would be dealt with in an addendum to HB 1696 that is being crafted by him and Bickford.
The bill is scheduled to be voted on by the Judiciary Committee on Monday.
Bickford said it could come before a full vote in the House and Senate as soon as April.
It should be noted that The Rochester Voice LLC recently incorporated in the State of New Hampshire and is a member in good standing with the Secretary of State's Office.